10 Funerals, One Wedding

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The consistent gloom and pain in the valley are devouring the petty patches of joy and happiness on daily basis. Shams Irfan details his crisis as a reporter who was reporting bloodletting while attending his cousin’s marriage

Decorated house of author’s cousin at Pampore.

After a hectic week in the field, reporting the just concluded municipal elections and a series of encounters, I was looking forward to a relaxed weekend as my cousin was getting married on (Sunday) October 21, 2018. But I knew, a journalist working in post-Burhan Wani Kashmir, cannot afford the luxury to relax completely.

So with a bit of excitement and anxiety, I set off towards my home on late Friday night, driving on a deserted Srinagar-Pampore road, manned by at least three check-points by army and SOG in-between. But the excitement soon faded as my newsroom alerted me to a grenade attack on 44 RR’s Shadipora camp in Pulwama. As I reached home, I came to know that after the grenade attack, suspected militants and army men exchanged brief gunfire, and a bullet hit a local lady named Firdousa. At my cousin’s house, bedecked for the marriage ceremony and filled with guests, everyone was talking about Firdousa. The ill-fated Firdousa was six-months pregnant when a bullet hit her in the neck. The festive mood inside the decorated tent pitched on my cousin’s front garden, turned sombre instantly.

After quick and quiet dinner, I and a few friends from the neighbourhood retired to the groom’s room, trying our best to get the latest news updates despite a month-long internet-shutdown in south Kashmir. While others slept to get up early for a hectic day ahead, I kept rolling in my bed thinking about the unborn child, sleeping in a dark grave, buried under layers of soil, maybe cursing us all. With same thoughts in my mind, I tried to catch some sleep but failed. I watched a small fluorescent and blue string lights, hanging outside my cousin’s window dance in front of my eyes till the wee hours. With a prayer on my lips that no other bad news comes through, I fell asleep.

The next morning, the noise of Wazaas, traditional chefs and their crockery, coming from an adjacent piece of vacant land, where the food was cooked, woke me up. As expected, Saturday, proved to be a hectic day for me and my cousins. With the internet still shut, I kept ringing my newsroom in Srinagar to check the happenings in Kashmir. Every time, I rang my office, I would make a silent prayer, hoping that no mother is separated from her born or unborn son. To everybody’s respite, the day melted into the evening without causality or a killing.

The same evening, my childhood friend and now a relative Suhail A Shah, who works with a local newspaper and reports from south-Kashmir, came with his laptop, his workstation. He wore a tense look on his almost ‘war-torn face’, as he has been reporting non-stop about events and encounters in south Kashmir. Since Burhan Wani’s killing in July 2016, there have been over fifty encounters in Pulwama, Shopian, Kulgam and Islamabad districts till now. And Suhail has covered all of them without a miss.

Even before Suhail greeting the would-be-groom, he came closer to me and said in a low tone: wani gos khud’ah yiman dohan reham karun (May Allah have mercy on us, at least for a few days). The following few hours, till the groom was brought inside the tent for mehandhi (Heena ceremony), passed off peacefully, as for a few moments, both Suhail and I forgot about our collective sorrows as journalists and mingled with our relatives and friends. With smiles missing from our faces, we kept exchanging glances, knowing pretty well the fragility of festivity and life in Kashmir nowadays.

Bodies of civilians who were killed by a blast at the encounter site in Laroo village of Kulgam. KL Image: Shah Hilal

But, for sake of being social, we did our best to forget our profession and set out to ‘enjoy’ the fleeting moments.

By the time we were done with the mehndi ceremony, the final ULB results were out and BJP had managed to win 53 of 132 wards in volatile south Kashmir. A few weeks back, Suhail and I had travelled to Islamabad town on a poll day to report. There we met a BJP candidate from Cheeni Chowk ward, who waited all day for a single local vote, but no-one showed up.

At night, as we sat with our friends, sipping almond and saffron kehwa, our discussion largely revolved around militancy and bloodbath. Outside, womenfolk were busy singing traditional Kashmiri songs praising the would-be-groom, and his reunion with his soon-to-be bride.

At 2 am, as the cold October night started testing the patience of the women inside the tent, meant for summer weddings, they decided to rest their vocal cords. Within minutes, the entire neighbourhood fell silent. The silence was so deafening that I wondered if anybody lives here at all.

Bloody Start

At 6:30 am, Suhail was woken by the frenetic ringing of his cell-phone. In present times, such odd hour calls to a journalist often end up conveying bad news. And this call was no different. “There has been an encounter in Kulgam, please check,” the caller told Suhail and hung up.

Almost an hour later, I too was woken by a friend by one such odd hour call. Still heavy with sleep and the previous day’s exertion, I called my office and informed them about the encounter. As the day progressed, while my other cousins and relatives busied themselves to serve the lunch to guests, I and Suhail stayed glued to our phones trying to confirm the conflicting reports emerging from Laroo village of Kulgam.

By 11:30 am, I called my office and they confirmed the killing of three unidentified militants and injury to two army men. With internet suspended in entire south-Kashmir, it was difficult to track the happening in Kulgam and report back to our respective newsrooms.

A mother shows picture of her son who was killed in the blast at Laroo, Kulgam.

As journalists, we know that lack of information gives way to rumours and misinformation, but this was no day for complaints. By now almost everyone at the wedding venue was aware of the encounter in Laroo, Kulgam. In between updates and endless phone-calls, I kept pitching in to help my cousins prepare for the arrival of the guests. As I dashed towards the vacant piece of the plot near my cousin’s house, where the wazwan (wedding feast) was cooked, one of the chefs called me aside and asked: Kulgam kyah halat? (What is the situation in Kulgam?) The chef, a resident of a Pulwama village, told me about how one of his relatives was recently picked up by the army and tortured. He was visibly frustrated about the frequency of encounters. “Yi govah khandar…yeti cheh dohai mat’am” (What kind of marriage is this….every day we mourn).

Without saying anything, I sneaked away to find a quiet place to call a few friends in the south about the latest updates. Before I could have dialed anyone, Suhail came almost running towards me with a sad look on his face. “There has been a huge blast near the encounter site in Laroo. Many people are feared dead,” he said in a low but angry tone.

As I had no idea how to react, I simply took out my mobile phone and called my office to inform our online team about the blast. By then, the tent started to fill with guests but everyone came with one query: what is the situation in Kulgam? And the answer to their questioning eyes soon turned the air of festivity into the somber affair.

By late afternoon, it was confirmed that five civilians were confirmed dead in the mysterious blast that went off at the encounter site. There were many more injured who were struggling for their lives in Islamabad and Srinagar hospitals.

The news of five civilians killed in Kulgam spread instantly across the two tents, where men and women sat separately waiting for lunch to be served. The sound of speeding ambulances ferrying injured from Kulgam passing barely fifty meters from groom’s house added to the tension.

As we served lunch, with our fingers crossed, to the guests who were weighed down by the pain, and spoke little to fellow guests, Suhail confirmed that the sixth civilian had succumbed to his injuries at SKIMS, Srinagar.

The mounting death toll, which we knew could be more given the reports we were getting from the encounter spot, kept both Suhail and me on the edge. We knew after lunch is served, we still have to get the bride in the evening.

The gap of three hours, between the last shift of lunch and departure of groom towards his bride’s house in nearby Pampore locality at 9 pm, was enough to keep every one of us on our toes. We knew, in present day Kashmir, the situation can change entirely in just three hours. As the internet was shut and Suhail was struggling to file his report, he decided to visit Srinagar, where connectivity was still not snapped.

As he left, I decided to take a quick nap to recharge myself, knowing well it is going to be a long night for journalists. After all, there were nine dead bodies (three militants and six civilians) waiting to be buried in restive Kulgam.

I might have dozed off for barely fifteen minutes when my phone rang. It was from a reporter friend who lives in Srinagar. “A teenager named Auqib Ahmad Sheikh has just succumbed to his injuries at SKIMS, Srinagar,” he informed.

Restless, I quickly got up and started pacing in my small room, looking vaguely outside the window from where my cousin’s decorated house was visible. I couldn’t help but weep over the irony of life in Kashmir. On one side, my cousin was getting ready to get his bride, and barely 70 kilometers south, there were ten devastated families waiting to bury their dead sons.

In my seven years of journalistic career in Kashmir, I have visited a number of victim families, who have lost their loved ones to this unending conflict. After every visit, I not only come back with their stories but their faces and tears that often stay with me for weeks together. But today, I was struggling to come to terms with the irony of life!

A boy injured in the blast at Laroo, Kulgam, taken to Srinagar’s SMHS hospital.

Finally, after gathering the remaining bits of both physical and mental energy, I took a bath; equating all the time myself with the slain ten, who too were prepared for their final journey not so far away.

Outside, women once again started to sing songs praising the groom and his soon-to-be bride, but in a voice filled with anger and sorrow. A few minutes later, when my cousin came out of his room, wearing his wedding suit, my phone rang once again. It was again my friend from the south Kashmir. In a voice, full of pain, he informed me that the funerals of nine out of ten people killed today were just concluded. “timan karan wuni dafan (they will be buried now),” he said in a sad voice.

For a long time, as it seemed then, I stood there surrounded by my relatives and friends, watching my cousin’s smiling face, as he boarded a decorated car to start a new chapter in his life. His eyes were filled with dreams and mind full of plans for the life ahead. As his car faded away in the darkness, I couldn’t help but think about victims of Kulgam, and their unfulfilled dreams, broken promises and shattered plans.

Lost in our own thoughts, Suhail and I quietly followed the groom’s car to participate in his nikah.

Life is just a show and show must go on.

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